By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

Guy Kawasaki, How To Drive Your Competition Crazy

Fifteen years ago, in his best-selling book, “How to Drive Your Competition Crazy: Creating Disruption For Fun and Profit”, business strategy guru Guy Kawasaki provided some excellent guidance for companies in competitive markets looking to differentiate themselves from their competition. His advice: When battling it out, make sure you choose the right enemy.

Oh sure, there were many more bits of wisdom offered up by Kawasaki in his 234-page business strategy book, but the big message is something many companies have yet to understand: Don’t act stupid!

One example of a major player that is both acting stupid and aiming their efforts at an enemy they may regret targeting is Oracle. The company, whose primary offerings are relational database management software systems, is apparently feeling a little threatened by MarkLogic, a much smaller, privately held, software company that has developed a different — read: potentially better — way of managing data and making it actionable by those who need to gain knowledge and insight from large sets of information.

The MarkLogic Server aims to solve an important problem faced by almost every content-heavy organization today: How to manage and act upon (in meaningful ways) the large pool of structured, semi-structured and unstructured content of importance to the organization. MarkLogic Server has gained increasing acceptance in the content industry — and lots of big customers in the vertical markets they target (government, publishing, and entertainment) — by helping organizations see business critical patterns in their content. These patterns are difficult (if not impossible) to detect and visualize from the typical output delivered from a relational database.

Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

At the recent MarkLogic User Conference 2010 in San Francisco, several major customers said their goal was to move all of the content they currently store in their relational databases into MarkLogic Server. Each customer shared their stories in the form of a case study presentation. One-by-one, they each made the case for why MarkLogic’s game-changing approach was better for their needs than solutions built upon relational database systems.

Oracle apparently is fearful that MarkLogic is poised to take business away from them. How much business Oracle stands to lose isn’t clear. Certainly not enough to kill off the software giant, but, you’d never know that based on their recent white paper aimed at making MarkLogic look less-than-attractive. This is the stupid part of Oracle’s marketing plan.

Regardless of what you think about relational databases versus other types of database solutions, Oracle’s approach is stupid because they don’t know the difference between choosing a good enemy and a bad one.

Guy Kawasaki

According to Kawasaki, “A bad enemy is usually an upstart — aggressive and hungry and willing to fight viciously. Trying to defeat a small company is risky. If you are successful, the victory is insignificant. If you fail, the embarrassment is huge. There’s more downside than upside in this kind of contest.”

Kawasaki also warns big companies like Oracle that defeating a small firm like MarkLogic may be more difficult because smaller firms can usually “mobilize quickly, change directions on short notice, and fight in a guerrilla war as well as you can.” Losing to MarkLogic, according to Kawasaki’s line-of-thinking, would be “catastrophic” to Oracle.

For MarkLogic this is an excellent opportunity. Big, bad, old-school Oracle is seen picking on a smaller, yet innovative start-up whose ideas are paradigm-shifting. One only has to look to Apple, Kawasaki’s former employer, to see the changes a smaller company can introduce that cause market disruption and change user expectations. This about it: iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad. Small names, big paradigm-shifting, market-disrupting change. These changes have caused consumers to expect more from all vendors, including Apple’s competitors.

Oracle must see MarkLogic as a threat since they are putting so much time, energy and money into combating the much smaller, but more agile and innovative, company.

MarkLogic benefits from all the attention that Oracle draws to the debate between relational databases and those powered by MarkLogic Server, which takes advantage of XQuery. For MarkLogic, Oracle is the perfect enemy because, as Kawasaki pointed out about Apple identifying IBM as their enemy early in the company history, a good enemy is “fundamentally opposed” to your business vision.

MarkLogic is quick to address Oracle's claims and to take advantage of the spotlight Oracle shined on MarkLogic and its products.

Kawasaki says start-ups like MarkLogic (which he calls upstarts) are companies striving to join the leaders. They are active, opportunistic aggressors who fight a zero-sum game with the leaders: that is, their gain is the leaders’ loss, and their loss is the leaders’ gain. So, for MarkLogic, disrupting the marketplace is to their advantage. They make a very bad enemy for Oracle because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Kawasaki says these types of marketing tactics just lead to “tit-for-tat” combat and that instead, companies like Oracle should focus on serving their customers, instead of focusing on the competition.

McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, used to say focusing on the customer, not the competition is the way to succeed in the marketplace.

“My way of fighting the competition is the positive approach,” Kroc said. “Stress your own strengths, emphasize quality, service, cleanliness, and value, and the competition will wear itself out trying to keep up.”

In this day and age, I think Kroc’s advice — and Kawasaki’s strategic guidance — is solid advice that many information technology software and service providers would be wise to heed it.